During British rule it was clear that the Englishman was the top caste in India. One of the most important ways to preserve their reputation was to never never allow white women to come into contact with the darkies. However World War I created a crisis that was not easily resolved. And ultimately the lost British prestige was the starting point for the movement for independence.
are plenty here and they are very good looking,” wrote a rather excited young
soldier to a friend in the Punjab. He was not alone. From the first deployment
of the Indian Expeditionary Force to France in 1914, the Indians proved
extremely popular with European ladies and the feeling was often mutual. Their
presence in large numbers (some 90,000 Indians were deployed to the theatre),
their distinctive appearance and good manners made them a magnet for local
treatment and convalescence, their reception was much the same. In seaside towns
along the south coast, where most of the hospitals for Indians were located,
convalescent sepoys and their Indian carers were objects of fascination for the
English ladies. “Brighton is covered with girls who make a lot of the natives,”
wrote a British hospital orderly to his wife in the spring of 1915, adding
that, “They are to be seen arm in arm with ward servants and are very fond of
“The women have no modesty,” wrote Surjan Singh, a patient in Brighton’s
Kitchener Hospital, “but walk with the men who please them most.” Another
patient declared in a letter to his brother, “There are lots of women to be
had. They write letters to us to come to their house and have food with them,
and that we can get a woman. I am very much confused in mind.” But most had
fewer reservations: “I am very happy in this place,” wrote one Sikh patient,
with obvious enthusiasm.
military authorities were not best pleased with this situation. Foremost in
their minds was the thought that sexual and even romantic relationships between
British women and Indians would diminish the izzat—dignity—of the Raj. Sepoys’
letters referring to the ready availability of white women were usually
censored and, for the same reasons, female English or European nurses were
almost never employed in Indian hospitals in either Britain or France. British
commanders and senior politicians knew well that liaisons between Indian
soldiers and white women could wreck the carefully constructed mythology of
least, were generally beyond the reach of Indian men, for they tended to be of
the “better sort”—the wives of officers and administrators, or perhaps pious
missionaries. Encountering a white woman who did not fit the constructed image
of the self-disciplined, morally upright memsahib was obviously as much a
revelation to Indians as much as it was a worry for the British elite.
Most of the women attracted to Indian soldiers in France and Britain were from
the working or lower middle classes. They showed little in the way of prejudice
towards Indians and their familiarity was clearly unsettling to those further
up the social scale. Commanders feared that this familiarity would undermine
the sedulously constructed barriers and hierarchies that separated troops drawn
from the colonies from white British troops. Moreover, it shook the very
foundations of Empire. Would Indians—indeed those on whom the British
ultimately depended to police their Empire—ever see the British in the same
light again? The mask of racial distinctiveness was slipping forever and
drastic action needed to be taken.
and France were now determined to do all that they could to prevent
un-trammelled liaisons between Indian soldiers and European women. In the
spring of 1915, the commandant of the Kitchener Hospital in Brighton, Colonel
Bruce Seton, ordered all Indian hospital staff to remain within the compound.
The same was true of patients, with the exception of a few convalescent
officers and warrant officers, who were sometimes issued with restricted passes
to visit the town. But as Seton readily acknowledged, the confinement of some
600 Indian patients and staff within the hospital area was “no easy matter”.
The brick walls had to be supplemented with barbed-wire palings and a police
guard was placed around the perimeter. Similar precautions were taken elsewhere
in England and, as far as possible, in France.
by soldiers who had grown accustomed to a measure of freedom. “They do not let
us out to the bazaars,” protested one patient to a comrade in the 40th Pathans.
“They do not let the French or English girls talk to us, nor do they let us
talk to them. The English have become very bad. They have become dogs. Our Indian soldiers are very much oppressed, but they can do nothing. There is
abundance of everything but there is no izzat.”
found an outlet in violence. An Indian Sub-Assistant Surgeon, who had been
working in a hospital along the coast in Bournemouth, burst into Seton’s office
and attempted to shoot him with his revolver. He missed and was subjected to
seven years’ rigorous imprisonment.